A frazzled teacher cringes at the thought of grading more papers. A real estate agent worries about the lagging housing market. A business owner can’t sleep because he worries about his livelihood.
Life is suffering, says the adage, but more Americans suffer less every year after experimenting with the Eastern meditative practices of qigong (pronounced chi-kung) and yoga to deal with stress.
Some 15.2 million adults have used yoga for health purposes, according to the a 2002 survey by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Yoga can potentially improve a person’s mood, counteract stress, increase lung capacity, reduce heart rate and blood pressure and help with anxiety, depression and insomnia, according to the center.
Penny Navis-Schmidt, a local qigong teacher who is also a psychotherapist, says the practice keeps her healthy.
“I’m a pretty type-A person,” Navis-Schmidt said. “I’m someone who really needs to do this.”
Every morning, Navis-Schmidt clasps her fingers together just short of her hands reaching the floor. She pulls her body up, takes her clasped hands and lifts them over her head, brings them down and out parallel to her stomach, and then back down. The movement is repeated, and Navis-Schmidt says the morning routine calms and energizes her.
She recalled being a stressed mother when her children were younger. If she overreacted to something, her kids would ask her, “Have you done your qigong?”
“I’ve always had a real love for wellness,” Navis-Schmidt said. “I’m also someone who has been kind of a seeker.”
Local yoga teacher Juliet Wing says yoga is about learning to live. “It’s not about flexibility. It’s not about getting your leg around your head. It’s about quality of life.”
Yoga and qigong each allow practitioners to learn proper breathing and relaxation techniques. They are not religion and they are not magic.
Each takes work, discipline and patience. A yoga student can pose perfectly. But if her mind wavers to thoughts of what to eat for dinner that night, she is not practicing successfully. One must pay attention.
Navis-Schmidt, like everybody, has what she calls a “monkey mind” — the wandering beast that controls us.
Yoga and qigong are both forms of moving meditation. And through meditation, humans can stop acting on the impulses that they so often regret. The practice can impart distance between impulse and action to allow one to avoid “knee-jerk” reactions, said Wing.
Meditation practitioners say that sitting and breathing deeply, allows them to acknowledge thoughts as thoughts, and then let them evaporate, ceasing their control over the mind.
“When we half-breathe, we half-live,” Wing said. Breath acts as a pump to allow body circulation. Breath is energy.
Chi means energy, and the practice of qigong — also known as Chinese Yoga — is also about breath and energy flow.
“It’s a very simple practice that anyone can learn, no matter your age and stage of physical ability,” Navis-Schmidt said. She’s worked with students from 7 years old to 93.
“If you come into the practice with intention for well being,” Navis-Schmidt added, “then you’re going to benefit from the practice.”
Both yoga and qigong promote wellness. They are not meant to supplant medication, though Navis-Schmidt said some of her patients have been able to decrease blood pressure pills, for instance.
“We are spending billions of dollars on our health care system and we’re not getting better,” Navis-Schmidt said. “We have to do prevention. We have to eat better. We have to exercise.”
Even during exercise, breathing deeply can slow the heart rate by several beats per second.
Both practices promote balance, which practitioners say promotes health.
Wing has a poster of 900 yoga poses in her studio. The photographer took 1,600 pictures because the fellow pictured on the poster eliminated those photographs in which his mind was unfocused during a particular frame. Even if his form was perfect, the posture is pointless without presence, Wing said.
“The perfect pose is whatever you can do at the moment,” she said.
Pain is not indicative of progress. If a practitioner feels pain, they should stop. Pushing the stretch, however, is required.
Misconceptions abound about both yoga and qigong — mainly that they constitute religion. While some forms of religious or deity-focused yoga exist, all yogas are geared toward self-realization. The most common yogas practiced in America leave out devotion, and focus mainly on developing breath, posture and flexibility through poses.
Many artists speak of forgetting the clock as they toil on a project. Meditation is similar. It is the practice of letting go.
“The body wants to be in balance because our mind can override the body’s wisdom,” said Wing.
Just as the sages say life is about the journey, and not the destination, Wing says, “It’s in the process of the practice where the benefits lie. It’s not goal-orientated.”
As Navis-Schmidt says, “It’s not snake oil, it’s not going to cure cancer.” But perhaps, taking one breath at a time, we can deal with whatever may come.